News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Big Picture

Voters Took the Lead on Political Change in 2018

While those newly elected to work on Capitol Hill may take the lead next year in the debate about revamping the political system, 2018's salient changes were almost entirely made by the voters themselves.

The fight for control of Congress was the dominant story in the midterm election, but a record number of state and local ballot initiatives produced a wave of important if under-heralded shifts in the how democracy gets practiced after this year.


Redistricting: Most significantly, the people of Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah decided in November to take congressional district mapmaking out of the hands of their state legislatures and turn the bulk of the work over to independent commissions. Ohioans made a similar decision in May.

Now a dozen states, which are currently assigned 32 percent of the House seats, will see partisan power plays significantly neutralized in the next decade's redistricting process, which kicks off after the 2020 census.

Coloradans decided they want an independent panel to draw their state legislative boundaries, as well.

Lobbying and Ethics: Voters in a handful of states approved measures to limit the reach of special interests by limiting campaign money and lobbying.

Floridians set some of the tightest rules in the nation on the "revolving door" between public service and advocacy, prohibiting state and local officials from lobbying their former departments, agencies or governing bodies for six years after leaving office.

Missourians compelled a tightening of rules for lobbyists in Springfield and set new campaign finance limits for state legislative candidates.

New Mexicans voted to create a state ethics commission. So did North Dakotans, who also banned foreign donations to candidates in the state and set tightened rules for lobbying and campaign financing in Bismarck. A similar catch-all initiative was rejected next door in South Dakota, but voters there did decide to limit out-of-state donations in future ballot measure campaigns.

In Arizona, by contrast, voters resoundingly approved ending the partisan independence of the state's political watchdog agency, the Clean Elections Commission.

Campaign Finance: Ballot questions aiming to confront the role of money in politics did well.

Massachusetts approved creation of a state commission to press for a constitutional amendment that would restore limits on corporate, union and non-profit political spending by effectively overturning the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

And voters in five cities – New York, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore. – set contribution limits in local races or agreed to provide public matching funds to municipal candidates.

Voting Rights: Floridians voted to restore voting rights for all convicted felons, except murderers and sex offenders, once they're out of prison. But Louisianans voted to bar felons from seeking elected office for five years after they do their time.

Maryland and Michigan voters decided to permit Election Day registration at polling places. Michiganders also approved no-excuse absentee voting, straight-party balloting and automatic voter registration for people when they do business with the secretary of state (unless they opt out). Nevadans embraced automatic voter registration for everyone dealing with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

But not all the successful ballot initiatives were in the cause of making it easier to vote. Solid majorities in both Arkansas and North Carolina, for example, decided to require voters to show a valid photo ID before casting ballots. And Montana voters decided by two-to-one, a to restrict absentee voting.

News. Community. Debate. Levers for better democracy.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter.

Big Picture
True
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

During his State of the Union address this year, President Trump said he would stonewall the legislative process if members of Congress don't play ball, writes Neal.

A year of broken standards for America’s democracy

Neal is federal government affairs manager at R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.

The term "democratic norms" has become a misnomer over the last year. America's governing institutions are undermined by elected officials who dishonor their offices and each other. Standards of behavior and "normal" processes of governance seem to be relics of a simpler time. Our democracy has survived thus far, but the wounds are many.

Free speech and free press have been the White House's two consistent whipping posts. Comments such as "I think it is embarrassing for the country to allow protestors" and constant attacks on press credibility showcase President Trump's disdain for the pillars of democracy. Traditional interactions between the administration and the press are no longer taken for granted. Demeaning, toxic criticisms have become so common that they're being ignored. As the administration revokes critics' press passes and daily briefings are canceled, normalcy in this arena is sorely missed.

Keep reading... Show less
Register2Vote

The founders of Register2Vote, Madeline Eden and Jeremy Smith, preparing registration information for mailing in Texas last year.

After successful Texas debut, tech-based voter registration platform goes national

Having had remarkable success at signing people up to vote in Texas last year, an Austin group of activists is expanding its pilot program into a full-blown national effort to overcome the sometimes ignored first hurdle for people in the voting process — registration.

"There are millions of voters who are registered who don't get out to vote," said Christopher Jasinski, director of partnerships for Register2Vote. "But the unmeasured part of the pie is the actual number of unregistered voters."

Keep reading... Show less